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Kim Jong-il's death brings end to era of cruelty, mystery

'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il's death ends 17 years of leadership defined by oppression, bizarre stories of grandeur, and tensions with the West over its nuclear program. 

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / December 19, 2011

North Korean women cry after learning of the death of their leader Kim Jong Il on Monday, Dec. 19 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim died on Saturday, Dec. 17, North Korean state media announced Monday.

Kyodo News/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

Kim Jong-il’s death at the age of 69 ended an era of profligacy and harshness that included reports of both his wild living in his many mansions and stories from defectors of extreme cruelty in a gulag system to which 200,000 people were constantly consigned. 

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The report of the demise of the man known as North Korea’s “dear leader” – who reportedly imported cognac along with Swedish hostesses and dined on fine food dished up by a Japanese chef who dedicated a special brand of sushi to him – confirmed speculation that he had been seriously ill for awhile.

Kim Jong-il was born in 1941 or 1942 near the Soviet Siberian city of Khabarosk while his father, the long-ruling Kim Il-sung, was an officer in the Red Army. However, most North Koreans never heard the truth about Kim Jong-il's origins. They were told that he was born in a cabin on Mount Paektu, the highest peak on the Korean peninsula, straddling the North Korean-Chinese border. As he was born, rainbows appeared in the heavens, according to the story put out by the propaganda machine that his father built over the years after he was sent by the Russians to Korea on a merchant ship following the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

Kim Jong-il was widely reported to have suffered a stroke in August 2008 and afterward disappeared from public view for several months while recovering. In the past two years his health appeared to greatly improve, and he went on regular inspection tours of military installations, factories, farms, and markets, generally accompanied by his son Kim Jong-un, who is poised to succeed him.

In fact, Kim Jong-il was last photographed on such a tour two days before his death, looking in good health – prompting speculation that he might actually have been assassinated.

Pyongyang took two days to announce the death,” says Han Sung-joo, who was foreign minister when North Korea and the US agreed in Geneva on a plan for the North to halt its nuclear program in exchange for construction of two nuclear energy reactors. “They are trying to put up a face that is orderly and united.”

But, “we are not sure whether it was foul play or natural,” says Mr. Han, adding that “I don’t think North Korea was prepared” and “I don’t believe we can rule out anything.”

A female television announcer dressed in traditional black Hanbok attire burst into tears on Pyongyang television when she repeated the announcement that he had died “from fatigue and hard work” that caused a heart attack.

Both before and after he took over full power following his father's death in July 1994 – in the midst of a nuclear crisis that would be repeated throughout his 17 years in power – he was credited with achievements that went far beyond credibility.

Among the most dubious was the claim that he shot a hole in one on his first swing at a golf course and that he repeated the feat on numerous occasions. He also, in his younger days, was extremely interested in developing the North Korean film industry – so much so that he ordered the kidnapping in 1978 of a South Korean actress and her director husband from Hong Kong to work on North Korean films. The pair escaped to the US embassy in Vienna in 1986 after he allowed them to go there to attend a film festival.

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